Poll Shows Strong Support for Bombing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page A01
President Clinton warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein yesterday not to mistake the skeptical questions that confronted the administration at a televised forum in Ohio as a sign that Americans lack the resolve for military action, as a new poll showed strong public support for bombing Iraq.
Sixty-three percent of Americans said they would support an air bombardment campaign if the Iraqi regime does not stop interfering with U.N. weapons inspectors, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey. At the same time, 68 percent of Americans say they approve of the way the president is handling the crisis, and 58 percent endorsed the view that "Clinton has a clear policy on Iraq," the poll found.
The reports were prepared at the request of the Iraqi government, but the experts wound up repudiating Baghdad's claim to have made full disclosures regarding the poison gas VX and its production of missile warheads capable of carrying chemical or biological weapons. U.N. officials have cited the reports as fresh evidence of the need for unfettered access to sites in Iraq.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, at Tennessee State University on the second day of a tour to explain the administration's policy, had cautionary words for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on the eve of his last-ditch diplomatic mission to Baghdad. "We hope very much that he gets a real solution, not a phony one, because the worst thing of all is if he got a phony deal," she said. "If we cannot get such a solution, and we believe the time for diplomacy is running out, then we will use force."
The new poll results provide support for the administration's assertion that it has public backing for military force, despite the jeers and barbed questions that greeted Albright and other members of Clinton's foreign policy team when they appeared at Ohio State University on Wednesday. Clinton, in remarks to reporters on the White House South Lawn before leaving for a day trip to Baltimore, said that event was a "good old-fashioned American debate" -- not a sign that public support for confronting Iraq is eroding.
"I think an overwhelming majority of Americans also want a peaceful resolution of this, but if it's necessary for us to act I believe America will do what it always does," Clinton said. "I believe it will unite, just as we did in 1991 [for the Gulf War]. I believe it will unite behind taking the necessary action."
Asked if Saddam Hussein might be "emboldened" after seeing the discord in Ohio, he replied, "Not if he understands the first thing about America."
Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac spoke by phone yesterday, and both men, according to Clinton, blessed Annan's mission as "a critical opportunity to achieve the outcome that all of us would prefer, a peaceful and principled end to this crisis."
At the same time, Clinton took other steps suggesting a military strike is imminent. He asked Vice President Gore, who had been planning to leave on a trip to South Africa on Monday, to scotch his plans so he will be in Washington if bombing begins. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen also delayed a trip that was to have taken him to South America and South Africa.
Clinton is scheduled to be in California at the end of next week to attend parents weekend at Stanford University as well as several political events. White House aides said the trip remains on the schedule, but will be canceled depending on how events in Iraq unfold.
For now, the administration is in approximately the same position as the public -- continuing to back diplomacy, but not holding out great hope this approach will work. In the Post-ABC poll, 49 percent said they believe "diplomacy still might work," while an identical number said they believe diplomacy is useless with Iraq and "it's about time for the United States to stop talking and take military action."
The public remains divided over what risks are acceptable for the United States to undertake in confronting Saddam Hussein. Asked if the United States should "try to force Saddam Hussein from power," 56 percent said yes, while 40 percent said evicting him is "not the role of the U.S. government." But the public does not support the military means -- an on-the-ground invasion -- that experts say would be necessary to topple the dictator. Fifty-six percent said they oppose a U.S. invasion with ground troops; 90 percent said they fear such an invasion would lead to high U.S. casualties.
Former President Jimmy Carter said even the more limited air campaign that U.S. military planners are preparing could backfire, expressing concern that hitting a biological weapons factory could release poisons "and cause untold loss of lives and devastation." The former president said an attack could kill innocent civilians and damage the U.S. reputation abroad. "I really disapprove of the launching of bomb attacks against the people of Iraq," he told Reuters.
Clinton, seeking to address the skepticism of U.S. motives in the Middle East, has taped a video explaining that the administration is opposed to Saddam Hussein, not the people of Iraq or Islam. The message will be distributed to media outlets around the region for broadcast today.
The president's job approval rating remains near the record highs he scored late last month, with 67 percent of those surveyed approving of the way Clinton is handling his job -- even as his presidency continues to be buffetted by the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy.
At the same time, a majority of the public are apparently skeptical of Clinton's denials of having ever had a sexual relationship Lewinsky. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they are "inclined to think" Clinton did have an affair with the former White House intern, while 33 percent said they do not think an affair took place.
But the public reaction to the possible affair is decidedly nonchalant. Only 33 percent said they would consider an affair an important issue, though a wide majority said they would be concerned if he lied under oath.
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